Opening your relationship is a deeply personal decision that requires careful consideration, open communication, and emotional intelligence. Whether you feel like non-monogamy is a lifestyle choice that you’re committed to because it reflects your values, or it’s something you’re trying out in the context of a specific relationship, it can be a deeply rewarding choice that brings a lot to both your personal growth and your relationship(s). But there’s no denying it can also be daunting — it can feel like a lot is at stake if you’re taking the plunge into ethical non-monogamy from within an established relationship. Here’s what I’d recommend keeping in mind to set yourself up for success when opening your relationship.
Be clear on why you’re opening your relationship
Before opening your relationship, it’s important that you and your partner both understand each others’ motivations and desires — even if they aren’t the same. What are your reasons for considering non-monogamy? Are you seeking more variety, personal growth, or a way to address unmet needs? Is it something you’ve always wanted, or a response to a new circumstance in your relationship?
While there isn’t necessarily a “wrong” reason to try non-monogamy, there are some patterns that crop up and that you may wish to be mindful of. Many couples without previous experience in non-monogamy may decide to open their relationship because of a difference in their libido or sexual interests, thinking that the partner with the more frequent sexual desire can get their sexual needs met outside the relationship. While this is possible, it imagines a very narrow and fixed set of outcomes: who this partner will date, what kind of connection (purely sexual) they’ll feel, and the way the other partner will feel. In reality, as with any other kind of dating, anything can happen.
Rather than defining a fixed list of wants and needs you imagine opening your relationship will meet for you, it’s helpful to keep a spirit of open-mindedness and experimentation — focusing on curiosity about what might come up, rather than a specific outcome.
Nail down your communication
Open and honest communication is the foundation of any successful relationship — it’s especially important when navigating non-monogamy. Before opening up, make sure you and your partner have open discussions about boundaries, expectations, and fears. Try to practice active listening rather than being solutions-oriented right away; this will help build the understanding and trust you need for this process.
Establishing clear guidelines and continuously checking in with each other is crucial for maintaining a healthy dynamic. Establishing relationship agreements and boundaries is key to creating a structure that works for everyone involved. These agreements may include guidelines around sexual encounters, emotional connections, and time management. Even if your approach to non-monogamy doesn’t include “rules” as such, or you’re trying to be mindful of couple’s privilege, it’s useful to have conversations about what makes you feel more or less safe, or your personal best and worst case scenarios.
Almost more so than communication about your boundaries and expectations, it’s helpful to communicate about how to do future communication. As you gain experience and insights into non-monogamy, it’s natural for boundaries to evolve, and to need to have further conversations — this doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or the person bringing up a new topic for discussion is complaining; it’s a feature, not a bug. Think about how you want you and your partner to raise questions, issues, or ideas, and set aside time for regular check-ins with your partner to review and adjust the relationship agreements and boundaries you’ve established. Reflect on what has been working well and what may need modification. Be open to renegotiation and be mindful of each other’s comfort levels and evolving needs.
Re-invest in your current relationship
It’s natural to be excited to throw yourself into the dating world as you open your relationship; if you’re meeting new people and having good dates, the rush of new relationship energy may make it feel impossible to focus on anything or anyone else. But even as you explore connections outside your primary relationship, it’s essential to maintain the bond with your partner.
In all your communication, you’ve hopefully discovered some key things that make you and your partner both feel loved, secure and affirmed in the relationship — focus on these as much as possible. Is there a way you can honor your partner’s love language? Set aside dedicated quality time to nurture your connection. Plan dates, engage in activities you both enjoy and create rituals that are exclusive to your primary partnership; put intention into responding to each others’ bids.
Pay attention to the routines that you and your partner have built together, and do everything you can to recommit to them. You or your partner may be totally unbothered by sexual jealousy and experience genuine compersion but feel irreparably hurt that after years of bringing them coffee in bed every morning, you stopped as soon as you started seeing your new date and wanted to sleep in after a late night at their place. Reaffirming the value and importance of your relationship will help maintain a sense of security and strengthen your emotional connection.
Consider other forms of support
Practicing any form of non-monogamy can feel very isolating — most of us have primarily monogamous social circles, and we may not feel comfortable talking about it with our families or work friends. Seeking out community and support can help; online forums, local meetups, and relationship therapists specializing in non-monogamy can provide guidance, reassurance, and a space to share your journey. Check out resources like More than Two or Polysecure, and take time to discuss your reactions to them with your partner and any other non-monogamous friends.
Working with a therapist can be especially beneficial; even though you may not be opening your relationship in response to a problem or issue, it’s a major transition, and relationship therapists who specialize in non-monogamy can provide valuable insights, tools, and support. Non-monogamy will likely require new strategies, tools, and interpersonal work for your relationship, and a therapist can help facilitate conversations, navigate challenges, and offer guidance on maintaining your current relationship while pursuing others. Seeking outside help is not a sign of weakness or an indicator that you’re doing non-monogamy “wrong,” but rather a commitment to the well-being of your relationship.
Expect the unexpected
This is true for life broadly, but perhaps especially for nonmonogamy: the only thing you can really plan for is that things will not go as you’ve planned. This isn’t meant to be a warning but to keep in mind that human connection is complex and multidimensional, and no matter how hard you work at planning for every eventuality and creating a boundary for every situation that might feel untoward, you’ll likely encounter emotional and relational situations you couldn’t have foreseen.
You should still plan your relationship rules, your preferences, and boundaries, and communicate about everything; it’s just also important to think about how you can treat each other — and yourself — with grace, empathy, and patience even if things develop in ways neither of you expect.
Maybe you always planned to date separately, but you find yourselves developing feelings for the same person and now want to add a third to your relationship; maybe you felt sure you never wanted to meet anyone your partner dates, but now you’re finding yourself wanting to take them out for a cup of coffee and learn what your partner likes about them. Maybe you weren’t jealous at all while watching your partner’s first fling with another person, but watching how sad they are when it ends really throws you for a loop. The only constant is change; there’s no way to plan for these things, but you can remember to leave some room to have compassion for yourself and your relationship.